With the Beatles (released 22 November 1963)
Dear With the Beatles,
22 November 1963 was a HUGE day for history. Walt Disney decided that one Disneyland was not enough cheese for the world and started planning for the Magic Kingdom in Orlando. TWO major authors passed away on this same day: C. S. Lewis collapsed in his bedroom of renal failure, while Aldous Huxley (and this is true) died after intentionally injecting himself with a lethal dose of LSD, basically tripping himself into the next life. (A portent for the strange times ahead.) However, all these news were overshadowed by how that morning, John F. Kennedy had smoothly boarded a Lincoln Continental open-top limousine, little knowing that he would departing it much earlier than he expected — and much more messily.
Your release, on the very same day, is something like this: as with the many things up in that list, it’s easily overshadowed by bigger things that happened before it and around that time. When Please Please Me was released in March 1963 it marked an admittedly explosive debut into the world of popular music, one which has been lauded by the buying public and later reviewers alike. “She Loves You” came in August, then just a week after you were released, Parlophone Records released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — and we all know how that went. (For the uninitiated reader: very well.) Meanwhile, you have mainly been treated as merely a more polished version of their debut, with mostly forgettable tunes and a bland and uninteresting production history. It’s just not as interesting the second time round, right?
Well, actually no. Because compared to your older sibling, I think you are much more delightful and interesting, because when they were creating you, George, John, Paul and Ringo mixed things up and introduced surprises here and there.
I’ll admit, it takes some time to get used to your buried gems: the opening track “It Won’t Be Long” takes you off guard by how intense and frantic it immediately seems when it starts, and its incessant call-and-responses — all TWELVE instances of them — start to grate on your mind after a while. (YOU try having people shout yeah at you from left and right for thirty seconds, see how it feels.) But then it grows on you, and after a while you notice that rather from being insufferable and all over the place, the harmonies from the backing singers are actually fun to listen to and they make the song seem like a drop tower, yo-yoing the listener from octave to octave and giving them an exhilarating experience. Although I loathed it at first, in recent days I’ve found myself — to my horror — humming the refrain repeatedly.
And once you’ve gotten past that, there’s loads more of these surprises lying in wait too. For “All I’ve Got to Do”, the song starts off slow and swinging — and then suddenly swerves into a quicker rock-and-roll beat halfway through the verse. It’s completely unexpected, but you look up from whatever you’re doing the minute you hear, cause it’s just so sudden. Paul suddenly joins John out of the blue for “Little Child” to sing the next sentence while imitating a child. And my favourite twist is from “Devil in Her Heart”, in which GEORGE, of all people, defends his lover against the onslaught of the naysayers John and Paul. (Sounds familiar.) The call-and-responses are still there, but this time they actually become part of the song, instead of being just an echo. The dialogue between George on one end, and John and Paul on the other, is so effective that you can actually imagine George trying to explain his love to John and Paul. This song may be helmed by George, but it shows just how tightly-knit they were as a group by now. There’s lots of these lying around, and every time you give me another, I can’t help but smile, and marvel at how ingenious it is.
But the biggest surprise of them all? It HAS to be how quickly George has matured in the space of eight months. When we last saw George in Please Please Me, he frankly wasn’t doing much except providing guitar solos and getting a bit of a token appearance. Here, not only do you provide us with THREE Harrison tracks (something unequalled until Revolver), you also get his first solo writing job. “Don’t Bother Me” is placed fourth on the first side, as if John and Paul are putting it centre stage. And no wonder, cause on his first song, you can already hear him trying out new and different things: a moody, self-pitying song, portraying a young man trying and failing to get to grips with the departure of his girl. (Well, he WAS only twenty…) Up till this point, nobody had really seen this level of self-pity in their work before, and yet here George was, trying something like this on his first ever song. It shows just how much of an impresario he was at heart, and just how much the band would experiment — and look inward — in the coming years.
Of course, the song’s not perfect: as I’m sure (or I hope) you know, petulance is never a good substitute for introspection and examining of feelings. But what the song lacks in lyrical finesse, it makes up for amply in its music: the claves and the bongos are introduced to the family of Beatle instruments thanks to George, and it gives the entire thing an exotic flavour. I’ve read that the Beatles were very keen on Latin-style arrangements in their earlier days and it shows: those instruments provide a quiet rhythm that somehow manages to suggest sleaziness and a little depression from the singer. It’s little touches like these, those infinite ways to suggest emotional sophistication, that separate you from Please Please Me: whereas that merely set the scene for seven years of great music, with you they upped their game, and thought of countless ways to deviate from the formula.
“Don’t Bother Me” has him singing as if he’s a little lost and doesn’t know what to do, which sort of became THE image of George (and also every introverted teenager) over the next couple of years. But that’s not all there is to this man: “Roll Over Beethoven” is a Chuck Berry cover, yes, but it just goes to show that George has it in him do a fast song and be enthusiastic about it, and I enjoy it just as much as I do his own composition. And as mentioned before, “Devil in Her Heart” is a lovely duet, with George perfectly encapsulating just what it’s like for people singing in defence of their love. (As one would.)
I could go on forever about how George shines on you, but by now my readers will be bored from listening to me talk about George for paragraphs on end (or just listening to me talk), so I might as well say something about the other members. Compared to George, though, they pale in comparison because their offerings are quite forgettable. I mean, I guess “All My Loving”’s bouncy rhythm has been catchy enough to be remembered for 55 years (and also become my phone’s ringtone), and “Till There Was You” has a nice, wholly acoustic — and exotic! — arrangement that is charming enough to erase the tackiness from its musical theatre origins, but sometimes your songs need more than just a clever twist to STAY remembered (find me ONE person who can hum the unspectacular refrain of “Hold Me Tight”, and I… shall call him/her a Beatles obsessive).
And in some cases, these twists are just downright wrong. I’ve said that you’re a very good album, but there ARE duds that don’t stand up to repeated listening. Whether it’s the aforementioned childlike tone in “Little Child” (which slowly turns from cute to condescending and then REALLY creepy) to the repeated “hold me”s in “You Really Got a Hold on Me”, once the novelty has worn off, you show your true colours and start sounding a little drab. And it’s safe to say that “Please Mr. Postman” is one of the rare covers for which the Beatles did not make the best version: yes, John’s enthusiasm is still there. And it sounds as fake as a horse costume: you can actually hear how he is very. Very. Bored. I’d never thought I’d say this, but the Carpenters sound better than the Beatles for this one.
This track, however, shows how the core things that made Please Please Me tick have carried onto your production. For as tedious as “Please Mr. Postman” is, there’s no denying that John’s giving it his all, at least in volume. Although John went for a variety of styles on the first album, his decision to mostly shout his way through your tracks is in no way inferior to those efforts: indeed, it’s thanks to these songs that we get to know the full power of John’s vocals. “Money (That’s What I Want)”’s bluesy performance shows just how much air can be forced out of John’s lungs, and it is BREATHTAKING. He basically screams his way through most of the vocals (“OH I NEED YOUR MONEY” is delivered with such conviction, you feel like immediately taking out your wallet). At the same time, the tongue-in-cheek delivery of the reply “that’s what I want” (both from John and the backing Paul and George) also tells us that none of them have lost their sense of humour and/or flamboyance either… and I love that in them.
And since it’s the Beatles we’re talking about, they have the ability to turn shtick into more or less gold. Take Ringo’s solo outing on you: “I Wanna Be Your Man”. It consists of about three phrases repeated over and over for two minutes. In the hands of other artists, this would be a disaster (which is presumably why the Beatles gave it to the Rolling Stones to sing in the first place). But the song is so well-produced, with its backing vocals (okay, it’s actually a little hard to hear Ringo over John and Paul’s backing vocals) and George’s guitar fillers taking your attention, and everyone involved is just so frantic, that you don’t even notice that the lyrics are repetitive. You’re too busy having a good time.
And I think that “I Wanna Be Your Man”, more than any other song, is the best statement on what you’re like as an album. Sure, some of the songs you contain don’t really hold up to repeated listening. But most of them can remain enjoyable if you’re not looking for anything deep, and they’re a delight and a wonder to listen to thanks to those unexpected bits you contained. And most importantly: they’re a more overt hint that the four musicians at your centre are willing to try, to put that extra effort into breaking down staid formulas for your audience, and to create effects that dazzle everyone.
So even though the magic might wear off slightly as time goes by, I still think that you’re something which deserves a lot more recognition, if only for the little intricate bits within you that make the songs more than just a passing amusement. Instead of being the younger sibling to the raw debut that was Please Please Me, you can consider yourself to have potential, and talent. With you leading the charge, the Beatles could only continue to go up.
Favourite track: I know I’ve been singing George’s praises a lot in this letter, but you know what, there’s another song that describes the situation I’m currently and usually in better: so it’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”. After all, who can resist the cheeky side of these four? 🙂
(Featured image from cover of With the Beatles, copyright EMI Music/Parlophone Records.)